How To Build A Career As A Board Executive

I often get approached by people looking to build a career as a board director. Many are just starting out, while others might already have one or sometimes two board roles, and are looking to grow a full portfolio to keep them occupied after retiring from their executive life.

Other times people have a desire to move into a board career earlier in their life. The good news is there are more opportunities than ever as the desire for diversity increases, not only in terms of gender, but also age and other attributes.

Younger people certainly shouldn’t be discouraged, although it would be fair to say the opportunities for a younger person starting a board career will be limited until they’ve really built out their capability and reputation as a director. Similarly, there is a high appetite for female non-executive directors.                     

If you are a senior executive and you’re earning a good salary, it’s often very hard to replicate that as a director until you’ve got a substantive portfolio. You shouldn’t underestimate how long it takes to do that.

So, don’t chase a board career for the money, at least not initially. It’s better to work on simply attaining one, or two, while you’re still working first. Then you can make the leap across into a full portfolio later in life when you’re either financially independent or aren’t driven by income.

Expand your current skill set to ensure success

What a lot of people don’t realise is when you’re moving into a board career, it is very much like starting your career all over again. Whilst you may have fantastic key achievements and transferable skills at an executive level, being a board director is quite different. Those things may be valued and get you the opportunity to start a board career, but you need to build an entirely different skill set in order to be successful.                          

It is fundamental that you complete the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) director qualifications. There are other organisations offering director qualifications, but the AICD qualification is the most highly regarded. Even if you’re looking to get a not-for-profit board role which will predominantly be pro bono, there is still a high expectation that you’ve completed the AICD course. If you haven’t done that, then you are disadvantaging yourself.

The qualification is not cheap and it requires a strong commitment not only to attending the lectures, but more importantly, to completing the assessment afterwards in order to qualify.                      

I see many people start the AICD course but don’t do the exams and assignment work because life gets in the way. If it’s only partially completed, it might as well not be completed at all. Once it’s done, it’s done. As long as you maintain your AICD membership, you should never need to do it again.                          

There are certain people out there in the board coaching space, who charge people ridiculous amounts of money promising to teach the necessary skills to be a director and give access to opportunities.

They often advise the AICD qualification is not required, but I would argue it definitely is. Anyone who has a board role without completing the AICD course more than likely got that role on a relationship basis and would very much be in the minority.

Don’t underestimate not-for-profit boards

Once you’ve completed the AICD qualification, the next thing to think about is how you get recognised as a board director, build your experience and build your profile and personal brand.

A fantastic way to do that is by joining a substantive, not-for-profit. I’m not talking about the local P&C although there’s nothing wrong with that, but a not-for-profit which already has a board of significant professionals.

You will be expected to join the not-for-profit board and attend board meetings on a pro bono basis. In other words, you won’t get paid. Often they will say to you, “We’re looking for a contribution of around two days a month, maybe half a day reading board papers, half a day attending a board meeting, and then some ancillary work on a subcommittee”, or something like that.

It’s important not to underestimate the expectation not-for-profits have for their board directors. The commitment is usually equivalent or potentially higher than commercial boards. By the time you attend their events, you support them in fundraising and doing other activities, it’s probably a lot more than they initially present to you.

If you’re going to make that commitment, it’s extremely important you know what is required of you in advance and that you feel confident you’ve got the time and capacity to deliver.

Join a board and the cause

Another thing you should ensure when joining a not-for-profit board, is that you have a genuine connection to their cause. So, whether you’re into animal welfare or education or indigenous issues or health issues, it’s great if you’ve got a personal connection to what they’re doing. In fact, when many not-for-profits are interviewing, they will only consider people for board directors who actually have a personal connection.

This was true for Autism Queensland. I was responsible for recruiting almost the entire board, including a number of chairs. One of their prerequisites was that the person had to have some kind of history or personal involvement with autism. Maybe they have an autistic child, maybe they work in the field; something that shows they understand the issues facing people with autism and that they’re there for the right reasons.

Not-for-profits understand they are a great vehicle for people to build their board career, but by the same token, they don’t want to be used for that. So, whilst it’s important to see it as part of your growth as a director, you don’t want to explicitly say to a not-for-profit, “The only reason I’m joining you is to get access to other board opportunities”.

Not-for-profit networking

Joining a not-for-profit board is also a great opportunity for networking. Many of the people on the board will be on multiple other boards so, they’re a great way to access other opportunities. Sitting in a room with people of that calibre on a monthly basis is also a great way to learn more about being on a board.

This was confirmed in one of my recent podcasts with Ian Klug, chairman of Brisbane Marketing as well as a number of other organisations. His background is in accounting. He talks explicitly about how being on not-for-profit boards was instrumental in him being able to move into being a very successful board director and building his career around that now.

If you want to get paid board roles, the important thing to understand is that at least 95%, if not more, never make it to the open market. A vacancy becomes available and the board will talk about who they know that meets the requirements of the role and is available. Those people are often approached directly and offered a board vacancy without any kind of recruitment process.

So, it’s incredibly important to build a relationship with the chair of the board before they know they need you. You can do this by identifying the chair from the company’s website, finding their LinkedIn profile and requesting a meeting. You can then start to build a rapport and follow up with them regularly to ensure when those opportunities become available, they know who you are.

A great example of that is told by Grant Murdoch on another podcast of mine. Grant was one of the senior leaders within Ernst & Young in Brisbane and he talked to me about when he wished to build his board career. He identified the most influential non-executive directors in Queensland, built a spreadsheet and made sure he touched base with each of those people at least once a quarter. That would be through a phone call, a coffee, or meeting them at an event. That’s a big ask, but as a result, he was able to build a broad portfolio of a number of very good quality and well-paid board roles quite quickly.

Ensure you’re a good cultural fit

It’s entirely up to you how assertive you want to be in building your board portfolio, but those who follow the structure from my book, Uncover The Hidden Job Market, and apply that in terms of building relationships at board level are extraordinarily successful.

But remember, it’s quite easy to get somebody onto a board, and a lot more difficult to get them off the board. So, cultural fit is extraordinarily important. A chair wants to know that if they invite you to join their board you will deliver the outcomes required and you’ll do it in a way that is amenable and fits well within the culture of the existing board members.

Whilst they may want people who will challenge ideas and be assertive in terms of their responsibilities, they certainly don’t want people who are going to be aggressive and antagonistic. As a result of that, when making decisions about who they want to join their board, they will often err on the side of caution and appoint people they know.

One way you won’t succeed in building a relationship with chairs is by going to AICD events. The top board directors rarely attend these events because they get hammered by aspiring board directors wanting to join their board.

That’s not to say those events aren’t worth going to, they definitely are from an education networking point of view, but you’re not going to meet the people there that are the key decision makers in building your board career.

Keep your options open

However you build your portfolio, make sure you don’t get pigeonholed. If you end up joining five not-for-profit boards, you’ll probably only be considered as a director in that sector. Similarly, if you join five privately owned boards, you may not get an opportunity to join an ASX board.

Now, it’s not to say that everybody wants an ASX board or wants an ASX top 50 board, but if you do have aspirations to get on larger ASX organisations’ boards, you need to make sure you’ve got good diversity in your portfolio and that you are continuing to strive for the next rung.

Ensure you’re hearing about board opportunities by registering for job alerts and subscribing to the AICD board opportunities page.

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